New liberal majority of Wisconsin Supreme Court immediately fires conservative director of state court system

August 4, 2023
Ben Marquis

On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court gained its first liberal majority in 15 years with the swearing-in of Justice Janet Protasiewicz, who was elected in April to replace retiring Justice Pat Roggensack.

The very next day, in its first order of business, that four-member liberal majority summarily fired the conservative-leaning Director of the State Courts Randy Koschnick with no public explanation or prior consultation with the court's three-member conservative minority, the Daily Caller reported.

That unceremonious sacking of Koschnik, who had served in that role since 2017 without issue and had been a well-regarded judge for 18 years before that, earned a scathing rebuke from conservative-leaning Chief Justice Annette Zeigler.

New liberal majority has "completely usurped" normal processes

In a lengthy statement issued Wednesday, Chief Justice Zeigler said, "The unauthorized action taken today by some of my colleagues firing Director of State Courts Randy Koschnick is flawed procedurally, legally, and on its merits."

She noted that she had considered taking action to block the termination of Koschnick but refrained from doing so due to the "reckless conduct" and concern that other employees of the court system would similarly be fired in retaliation.

"We are a collegial court, not a court of four. I expect better of my colleagues," Zeigler wrote. "A vote of four may dictate decisions of our court, but those votes are taken during formally noticed court conferences scheduled by the Chief Justice; no such conference has occurred. This action is procedurally flawed in at least that respect. It is also not how a collegial court decides matters and is dysfunctional at best."

She pointed out that "court conferences" were part of the normal "deliberative process" that was "completely usurped by this overreach today. Several of my colleagues do not think court conferences are necessary to conduct court business when there is a pre-ordained determination. Their actions today effectively silence those members of the court who have not been privy to these secret discussions."

A "raw exercise of overreaching power"

Chief Justice Zeigler went on to cast doubt on the legality of the move and highlighted how "unwise" it was, given that Koschnick had served in a "non-partisan, non-political manner" and had been heralded for his achievements in improving the court system's focus on mental health issues, resolving a prior shortage of court reporters, and keeping the entire system up and running during the COVID pandemic.

"The court’s action today violates the Wisconsin Constitution which endows the Chief Justice with administrative authority. The authority of the Chief Justice is being undermined and eroded unlike any time in this court’s history," she said. "The court has had different shifts in make-up over the years, but this lack of respect for longstanding institutional process is reckless."

"To say that I am disappointed in my colleagues is an understatement," Zeigler concluded. "My colleagues’ unprecedented dangerous conduct is the raw exercise of overreaching power. It is shameful. I fear this is only the beginning."

Firing was "irrational, political, sadly predictable"

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Koschnick said he had been informed earlier in the week that he would soon be let go but received no explanation as to why in the curt letter he received Wednesday which stated that he would be terminated by the end of the day.

Liberal "Justice Karofsky instructed my staff to box up my personal items in my office today, which is very demeaning to my staff. She knows I’m out of town," Koschnick told the Journal. "There’s no decorum. There’s no grace. There’s no civility."

Koschnick, who said he hasn't dismissed the possibility of a lawsuit over his firing, suspects his sudden "irrational, political, sadly predictable" termination was due to his conservative beliefs and his unsuccessful 2009 campaign to replace former liberal Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

The Journal noted that Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Audrey Skwierawski, a former federal prosecutor and Milwaukee County prosecutor who was appointed to the bench in 2018 by then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker, will serve as the interim director of state courts until the Wisconsin Supreme Court picks a permanent replacement for Koschnick.

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